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America doesn't need guest workers

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Posted: Friday, March 8, 2002 10:00 pm

Here we go again. Like the proverbial bad penny, President George W. Bush's amnesty/guest worker programs keep turning up.

Note that I refer to "Bush's programs" because, with the exception of Latino advocacy groups and the president's thoroughly intimidated staff, few others muster up any enthusiasm.

The latest cipher to join the Bush choir is Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.

The Arizona Republic reported that Ridge's team and Mexican negotiators are pounding out a deal to increase the numbers of Mexicans working in the U.S.Joe Guzzardi

To get the maximum bang for his buck, Ridge is also diligently forging ahead with a plan to authorize Mexican trucks to operate north of the border zone.

Two months ago, I wrote that Mexican President Vicente Fox had not achieved any of his campaign goals. But as of today, Fox still has accomplished nothing domestically. Most obviously, Fox has not created the hundreds of thousands of new jobs he promised.

Hence, Fox's stature in the eyes of Mexico rests on whether he can influence Bush to ram through a guest-worker program. If Fox succeeds, he's a hero. Fail and Fox is just another in a long line of ineffective Mexican leaders.

The rub is that U.S. doesn't need guest workers. For every foreign worker who enters the U.S, an American worker suffers.

From Economics 101: More workers willing to work for less money means downward pressure on wages.

"It's a race to the bottom," said William Heffernan, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri.

Until 20 years ago, meatpackers were unionized employees who earned $18 an hour adjusted for inflation. Now low-paid, nonunion workers from Guatemala and Mexico who start at $6 an hour staff meatpacking plants

"Employers can take advantage of these people because they can threaten to send them back," Heffernan said.

The old saw about "Americans just won't do these jobs" hangs on despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Look at the propaganda. "Death at the Wall" ran in Rolling Stone magazine. Written by former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Dan Baum, the story tells a familiar tale about those who come north seeking a better life.

Baum, in the magazine's Letter from the Editor, said: "The people who walk across the desert to make beds at the Ramada Inn are the unsung heroes of American capitalism."

Missing from Baum's perspective is that providing for the welfare of Mexican citizens is the responsibility of the Mexican - not the U.S. - government.

That important observation aside, let's follow, as Baum does, the travels of "Arnaldo."

Arnaldo made it across. He's alive and well. In Baum's eyes, Arnaldo triumphed.

"He was working, hanging sheetrock for $11 an hour with his brother and a bunch of other guys from Cofradia (Mexico)," Baum wrote.

The problem is that $11 is about one-third of union scale.

For an investigative reporter, Baum didn't do much investigating. A quick Internet search took me to Gangbox, a site where carpenters dish out the inside scoop on their trade.

There I met Gregory A. Butler, a card-holding member of Local 608. Butler told me that illegal immigrants have severely impacted wages for Americas 5 million carpenters.

Contractors who bid out sheetrock jobs are frequently abusive to illegal aliens, Butler said. They often demand 100 boards per worker per day - about twice the normal production. The contractors bill out at union rates, pay less than half that rate and pocket the difference.

The ultimate irony is that those most opposed to a guest-worker plan should include MALDEF and LULAC. If those organizations had the best interests of Mexican workers at heart, they would be against more cheap labor entering the U.S.

Of course, MALDEF and LULAC have a quite different agenda, but that is another column.

If Bush gets his way, Arnaldo and his brothers better look over their shoulder. Soon, they'll be working for $8.

Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly opinion column since 1988. He can be reached via e-mail.

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